Disclaimer: I don't own anything to do with Avatar: The Last Airbender.
Rating: M
Pairing: Zutara

Crossing the Line
Prologue: Despair

A single cold tear made a slow track down the pale cheek of Fire Lord Zuko.

Dead. The absence of life. Deceased. Bereft of sensation. No matter how it was said it all meant the same thing, dead.

They had lost another one.

He stifled a sob as the reality crashed over him in waves. Dead. He hated the word with every fiber of his being. It surrounded him wherever he went. He couldn't escape it. It was his world now and everybody knew it.

His heart ached as he watched the child sized coffin be placed atop the pyre. A flutter of white silk robes, whipped about by the wind, dragged Zuko's attention over to his wife. Mai's hand gripped her father's arm in a vice like grip and she sagged against him trying to constrain her own agony. Her skin was deathly pale and the constant onslaught of grief had made her so thin he was sure it couldn't be healthy. His eyes only stayed on her briefly. He wished he knew what to say to her, how to comfort her but words had been lost between them some time ago.

They buried their third son today.

Mai had given him a total of five children and yet Kami had seen fit to take them all away. Every healer in the nation had visited her. Every one of them had said the same thing. They next child would survive, they were sure of it. But they had been wrong, over and over again.

Their first child, a daughter, had been stillborn. They had mourned together but had vowed to try again. Their second child had been a son. The entire fire nation had rejoiced at his birth. Sadly, he had died just short of six months of life. This loss had put the first cracks in their marriage. He hadn't known what to say to her and apparently the sight of him had been too painful for her for some weeks. When finally she fell pregnant for the third time the nation had waited in silence for the verdict. She suffered a miscarriage. Servants shuddered to remember the day she ran sobbing through the halls and threw herself before the statue of Kami and begged to know why, why she couldn't give her husband a living heir. His advisors had begun to whisper their doubts but he refuse to listen, refused to give up on her. Attempting to salvage what was left of their happiness they had tried again. Their second son had died in his arms only two weeks after birth and their final had been stillborn.

His advisors begged him to take another wife and he refused them repeatedly. She was shamed enough; he would not dishonor her with abandonment. Her shoulders shook and the tears leaked down her cheeks but her face was a beautiful mask. Only he and her chambermaids knew of the dark circles, hidden by layers of fine white powder, that shadowed her eyes. The fire had long since died from her eyes and he could hardly remember what her smile looked like. The exhaustion and despair were beginning to chip away at her strength and he could see her fa├žade cracking more and more with each day but there was nothing he could do for her. They didn't speak, she wouldn't look at him, he didn't know how to make things right with her. They were lost to each other. The cold, emotionless person she had always shown to the world was the person taking over at all times. Her humanity faded more with each day and she became more of a moving statue, a presence, rather than a person.

They had been happy once but the continual loss had driven such a wedge between them, he feared it would never be repaired. He prayed daily for the answer. He needed an heir. He had too much respect for his wife to leave her. His people looked to him for an answer. An answer he just didn't have. How could he think of the future when his heart was breaking now? How could he try again when the result was always the same? Why did Kami see fit to torture him so? Was this retribution for all his past mistakes? How did he make things right?

The prayers had been said and the final blessings spoken. He stared into the flames that leapt to the pyre and began to lick at his son's coffin. He saw Mai's shoulders tremble as the coffin was consumed in flames. His hand twitched and his eyes drifted down to stare at it. It was habit to want to reach out to her, to want to comfort her, but what good would it do. She'd only push him further away.